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Posted at 2:02 PM ET, 01/27/2011

The GOP's quiet evolution on gay rights

By Aaron Blake

The recent repeal of the military's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy notwithstanding, it's been quite some time since social issues played a prominent role in national politics.

Republicans rode to victory on the strength of so-called "values voters" in 2004, championing a message of social conservatism on issues like abortion and gay marriage. And it might have delivered them four more years in the White House.

Since then, the Iraq war and the struggling economy have consumed the American electorate and left little appetite for much else.

But beneath it all, a little-noticed trend has emerged: the Republican Party has moved steadily to the left on gay rights.

To wit:

* The upcoming Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) has invited gay Republican groups to its annual meeting in February -- a move that has been met with boycotts from some conservative groups.

* In February well-known GOP consultant Mary Matalin (a veteran of the Bush-Cheney team) will host the first Washington fundraiser for the gay Republican group GOProud. (Prominent conservatives Andrew Breitbart and Grover Norquist sit on the board at GOProud. And Ann Coulter did a fundraiser for the group last year.)

* During the lame duck Congressional session last year, 15 House Republicans and eight Senate Republicans crossed over to support a repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" that banned gays from serving openly in the military. Gay groups say their initial whip counts were much lower.

* Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) accepted an award from the Log Cabin Republicans in September, becoming the highest-ranking Republican to do so.

* National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) invited gay groups to meet-and-greets with the party's "Young Guns" candidates last cycle, and the groups have been included in meetings with all three major party campaign committees.

* Former Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman came out as gay in August and began a push to legalize same-sex marriage.

Ten years ago, it wouldn't have been so easy for many of these influential conservatives to ally themselves with gay Republicans. The GOP back then was winning on social issues and thought consolidating its social conservative base was the ticket to a sustained majority.

Remember that an undercurrent of the 2004 election was the number of ballot initiatives banning gay marriage in targeted states, a strategy that led to an unusually high turnout of social conservatives.

Now, though, gay rights issues are largely under the national political radar. And Christopher Barron, chairman of the board at GOProud, said that has worked in his favor. He said his group launched at an "unbelievably fortuitous" time in 2009, given that another movement was sprouting that was generally indifferent to social issues.

"Our organization got started at the exact same time that the tea party movement was getting started," Barron said. "It was a natural fit, because the party has been laser-focused on fiscal issues. There's been no interest in going back to the well on the social issues."

There's also the matter of how well those so-called "wedge" issues work. While abortion remains a pretty potent point of debate in American society, Republicans and GOP-leaning independents have moved steadily toward accepting gay rights in recent years.

Polling tells the story.

Data from Washington Post/ABC News polling shows that Republicans who support openly gay people serving in the military increased from 50 percent in 2001 to 64 percent in early 2010. By the time "Don't Ask Don't Tell" was repealed in December, 74 percent of Republicans said they supported gays serving openly in the military.

The numbers look similar on other gay rights issues.

Data from the Pew Research Center shows that, between 1987 and 2009, the percentage of Republicans who though school boards should be able to fire gay teachers dropped from 59 percent to 32 percent. The percentage who disagree with firing gay teachers rose from 56 percent to 64 percent between 2007 and 2009 alone.

There are a few reasons for this.

One of them is the generation gap -- younger people, on the whole, are more accepting of gay rights.

The second is big(ger) names. While the Log Cabin Republicans, a prominent GOP gay rights group, has been around for more than 30 years, GOProud has gained considerable press in its relatively short existence thanks to an ability to lure big-name supporters to the group. Those big names lend credibility to the cause and are forcing people to take note.

Matalin said the continuing emphasis on fiscal issues has also led Republicans to notice the common ground they share with some gay voters.

"Conservative gays are into tax, security, all the issues, as opposed to being a single-issue orientation," Matalin said. "The GOProud gang is really smart, clever, creative and cool."

On the flip side, as gay Republican groups have taken off, social conservative groups like the Family Research Council have seen their influence wane. And Log Cabin Republicans Executive Director Clarke Cooper said that diminution opens doors when groups like his want to meet with GOP members of Congress.

"Had they been faced with the Family Research Council going after Cornyn and Sessions and (former RNC Chairman Michael) Steele, saying cease and desist, in previous years, they would have capitulated," Cooper said.

None of this is to say that there's not still plenty of opposition to gay rights in the Republican Party. On the contrary, the party remains resolutely opposed to gay marriage, with only 27 percent of Republicans supporting it. And the social conservative segment of the party is still a dominant one -- particularly when it comes to picking nominees in contested primaries.

The question going forward is how do Republicans deal with these issues when the economy recovers? Or if they unseat President Obama in 2012? What happens when they've actually got time and energy to devote to gay rights issues? Will social conservatives push for a return to a platform that promotes opposition to gay rights?

Almost all of the examples described above have been met with resistance. It just hasn't been as overwhelming or note-worthy as it used to be. The resistance to CPAC, for instance, has been more muted than it might have been in the past.

But without bigger fish to fry, divisions within the Republican Party become more of nuisance. The evolution has been slow and will continue to be so; in the meantime, it's still a tough issue brooding beneath the surface.

By Aaron Blake  | January 27, 2011; 2:02 PM ET
Categories:  Republican Party  
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